I was speaking with some friends over the weekend, and we got to talking to some of the campaigns we've been in over the years. One game in particular started to dominate the conversation, which in turn brought up some of the weaknesses of the game. It wasn't a bad game either, but the problem was that the game prematurely ejaculated. What do I mean by this? Well, read on to find out.
Now, before I talk about what exactly premature ejaculation is in a story sense, you need to understand how a story is supposed to work. I'm not going to go into detail explaining it, instead I'm going to direct you to Terrible Minds, where Chuck Wendig recently put up an awesome post explaining it. In fact, if you read the bolt print there you may understand the whole gist of this post without me talking about it further. So, why not go up and click that link and read yourself some damn good blog writing. Don't worry, I'll wait.
You back? Alright good. Do you get it? If not, don't worry, I'm going to explain it quickly here. Premature Ejaculating is when your story, or game in this case, hits the peak of its tension and excitement before the end game. In TV terms I believe it is called Jumping the Shark, where the show does something that it just is incapable of matching, and so as the story goes on it just feels like more and more of a let down. It doesn't matter if you hit peak excitement in the first few sessions, somewhere in the middle, or just before you hit the end game, if you hit it to early you've just prematurely ejaculated, and your audience is left there feeling dissatisfied, wondering if that's it, and are possibly very sticky.
Now, don't get me wrong, it is ok for a tension peak to be smaller than the one that came before it. However, as Mr. Wendig says in his post, the general tension arc should be moving upwards until the end of the story where it finally breaks. So, now that you know what premature ejaculation is, how do you prevent it from happening? Here are a couple of methods.
Plot The Tension Curve
Now, presumably as the GM you have planned your game out at least a little in advance of what you are doing. If so, then just look at your planned segments, and make sure that the direness of the situation is moving upwards. Like it says in Mr. Wendig's post, it can (and should) dip on occasion, but in general it should be moving ever upwards until you are hitting the end game and climax the game.
If you aren't planning ahead, then look back to what you've already done and see how you can make it bigger and better. Making the situation that much bigger, that much more important. Putting the characters more and more in the limelight.
If you do this right, then your tension curve from far off will look like what Mr. Wendig calls the 'Male Ejaculatory Arc', which is a good thing. It means the story builds and builds until it reaches its climax. At which point, it is over. Again, peaks and dips on the way up are fine. But the idea is that you are moving ever upwards over the long run.
Control Your Pacing
Even with the most well plotted tension curve, if you don't control your pacing than you're going to make a mess of things before you want to. It's just physics sadly. See, it doesn't matter how well plotted out the peaks, crests, and dips of your plots tension arc is. If the pacing sucks, the players are not going to move along the arc, they're going to walk beside it while looking at the mountains going "Ho hum, are we at Grandma's yet?"
How do you want to control your pacing? When you are going towards a peak, you start hand waiving a bit more. You don't need all these details and slow bits, you came here today for battle. So "do you want to do something before the fight? no? Ok, lets go" and you're in there. Even in battle you should hand waive things. Let the PCs kill the unimportant people quicker and play up the speed, action, and all that other fun stuff that is going on. Keep things moving. Your goal here is for there to be excitement, excitement to trump any excitement you've hit previously. Afterall, this is your end game. Make it memorable.
I want to point out, that this type of tension arc only really needs to be followed in a game where you are focused on telling one main story. For Campaigns, and other games that are more character focused, you need to use other tricks to keep the players focused (I recommend making them really care about their characters, above and beyond all else).
Also, the idea here is really to keep your players interested in your game. If your players are falling asleep at the table, it's not good. And prematurely ejaculating can really damage a game. The character's are trying to care, but the game just isn't giving them what it promised. It's spent, it's tired, and it wants to go to sleep.
So try to guard against it. To steal the term from Eddie Izzard, "What do you mean premature ejaculation? Mature, experienced, Veteran Ejaculation!"